What if we restored the hereditary peers?
Imagine for a moment that we had a real conservative government. Not just a majority government with the current Conservative lot, but a government that was genuinely conservative. Imagine if that government looked at the damage New Labour had done to the country and decided enough was enough, and it was time to undo as much of that damage as possible. One obvious piece of damage they could undo would be Blair’s shameful and unnecessary constitutional vandalism in the form of the House of Lords Act 1999, thus restoring Britain’s hereditary peers to their rightful place in the upper chamber.
So the deed is done, the Act is gone, and the old hereditary peers find themselves returning to Parliament, while those who have inherited their titles since the passing of the Act now find themselves thrust into the legislature. They dust off their old ermine robes and shuffle along to the first State Opening of the newly restored Parliament.
The first thing they notice upon their return, as they jostle for a good seat in the chamber, is how crowded it is. Since their ejection in 1999, Blair has used his power to create new peerages to devastating effect. He has packed the upper chamber with party hacks, failed politicos and apparatchiks. Not wanting to be left behind, the leaders of the other parties have done the same thing, meaning the number of life peers has skyrocketed.
In order to keep the House of Lords at a reasonable size, the government of genuine conservatives therefore decides that most of the life peers have to go. It passes a new law restricting their number to just a couple of hundred, possibly less, and force them to elect who will stay, just as the hacks and politicos forced the hereditary peers to do. Thus, the House’s hereditary nature is restored, while a limited number of spaces for life peers remain so the knowledge of genuine experts can be kept in the upper chamber.
The newly restored peers then notice that as the parliamentary year rolls on, the chamber suddenly becomes a lot less crowded. Many of their colleagues no longer attend: some have careers and can’t attend regularly, some came for the splendour of the State Opening but no bills before Parliament really interest them, while some didn’t even turn up to the State Opening as they simply aren’t interested in being legislators. Those peers who do attend regularly worry, though, that when an important vote is held these ‘backwoodsmen’ may suddenly appear to swing it one way or another.
Fortunately, the government of genuine conservatives has planned for this. It passes a law that states that peers must take their seats in Parliament no later than two months after receiving their writ of summons. If they fail to do so, they will not be able to take their seat until the next writ of summons is issued. Peers who do take their seats but then fail to attend for a year will also be excluded until they receive their next writ of summons. Thus, one of the main criticisms of the old House of Lords is resolved.
Later, to the horror of the House and the general public, Lord So-And-So of Such-a-Place is convicted of expenses fraud, arson, murder and bad parking, and receives a hefty prison sentence. However, to everyone’s bemusement, once he finishes his prison sentence, he is perfectly entitled to retake his seat in the upper chamber. Public confidence in the House of Lords is shaken, but the government of genuine conservatives, keen to preserve the newly restored upper chamber, pass a simple law that states that any peer convicted of a serious criminal offence shall no longer receive a writ of summons, and thus criminal peers are expelled. Another sensible reform has been enacted.
Despite these reforms, the issue of creating new peerages remains unresolved. It becomes clear that although the number of life peers has been limited, a future Prime Minister keen to impose his cronies on the upper chamber can simply award them hereditary peerages instead. To solve this, the incumbent Prime Minister graciously agrees to cede his power to advise the Monarch on the creation of new peerages to the Independent House of Lords Appointments Commission, who only create new life peerages when a vacancy arises from the death, expulsion or retirement of a serving life peer, and hardly ever create hereditary peerages.
The hereditary peerage can once again take its place within our constitution, where it will be ideally placed to provide proper scrutiny of the Executive. As their seats are allocated by accident of birth, hereditary peers cannot be filtered out by the political class and can thus provide a genuinely independent voice in our constitution, and look at things in a longer-term view than MPs.
Is the restoration of hereditary peers a fantasy? Perhaps, but all it would take is a government with enough conservative cojones to pass a series of simple bills, or one big repeal and reform bill.
As long as sensible measures are introduced, such as penalties for non-attendance, a retirement scheme, the removal of the Prime Minister’s power to arbitrarily create new peerages, and the expulsion of peers who’ve committed serious crimes, the hereditary House of Lords will serve Britain well for the remainder of the 21st Century and beyond.